CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 Brigitte Chapelain: William Marx, in your third book Vie du lettré, you consider the lettered person as both a learned and an erudite figure. The term “lettered” seems to be seldom used these days. What do you see as the difference between a lettered person and an erudite person?

2 William Marx: The lettered person is a truly transhistorical and broader figure, in my opinion, than the erudite person. It is someone who has a relationship with the humanities, with littera. Historically, it primarily meant someone who could read, particularly in the distant past when literacy was not the norm. I wanted to find a figure able to span all written civilizations since antiquity—not only Classical antiquity, but also Mesopotamian antiquity, from the scribes in Mesopotamia and Egypt up to the present day. I felt that the relationship to the humanities, writing, and text provided an essential link between all of these periods and civilizations. The advantage of the term “lettered” is that it refers to a medium: to text, and language. The word “erudite,” on the other hand, refers to the product of work, i.e., the accumulation of knowledge, in particular from texts and the many different documents that can be studied. My focus in that book was on the way in which knowledge can be constructed specifically from texts, which as a literary scholar I felt was best expressed by the term “lettered.”

3 Brigitte Chapelain: Do erudite people still exist in modern society? Many different people have dedicated themselves to knowledge, often specialist knowledge. Does anyone currently embody the erudite person, and if so, who?

4 William Marx: It seems to me that the erudite person is a somewhat forgotten figure, one that has been largely ridiculed in modern society. Much of the human and social sciences developed in opposition to erudition: modern history, for example, developed in opposition to the annalistic practice of the Maurists—the monks of St. Maur—who accumulated documents and charters, examined and stored them, studied them, and turned them into “erudite,” or antiquarian, history. But from the nineteenth century onward, history as a human and indeed social science developed very differently, more through the lens of problematization than the accumulation of knowledge.

5 What erudite figures are there today? Erudite people do of course exist: there are some in academia, and many amateur erudite people. I would note the model of learned societies, which had a major, powerful presence in the nineteenth century and part of the twentieth century, but which have been replaced by a more professional form of science. And modern science is largely built in opposition to erudition. I spent some time at the Agence d’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur (French Agency for the Evaluation of Research and Higher Education—now the Haut Conseil de l’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur, HCERES, High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education), which is responsible for evaluating academic research in literature, philosophy, and the arts, and recall having discussions with colleagues who were extremely negative about research projects based on erudite scholarship, while I defended them. I understand their reservations: erudition by itself is not enough, it has to be accompanied by thought, and by problematization. The official, professional form of science now seems to tend to reject the term erudition, which it no longer sees as an adequate definition of its practices.

6 Brigitte Chapelain: Yet you, along with other researchers, seem to be pursuing a research tradition in the field of literature that is based on the erudite scholarship so emphatically rejected by the formalists of the 1960s and 1970s.

7 William Marx: There are certainly periods and trends in the humanities, particularly in literary studies, in which a kind of return to literary history—to erudite history—can be seen. The literary theory era began in the 1960s–1970s with New Criticism, and continued into the 1980s and early 1990s. From the 1990s onward, there was a fairly natural backlash against the excesses of a theory that dispensed with the most factual kind of knowledge, and literary history then really made a comeback. I saw myself how the same people who had produced theoretical or theorizing dissertations were immersing themselves in author biographies thirty years later. That was fairly common. I can think of numerous examples of researchers of varying degrees of fame in the literary sphere who went down that road.

8 Brigitte Chapelain: In your work, you draw extensively from philosophy, philology, mathematics, history, and ancient languages. Where did your love of history and ancient languages in particular come from?

9 William Marx: It all stems from my fascination with ancient languages, as I recounted in my last book, Un savoir gai. My first encounter with mythology, at the age of ten, left me with the vague idea that this was a civilization more open to a different kind of sexuality. I was ten years old and had no awareness of my own different sexuality, but was immediately attracted to the naked men I saw in the images of myths. I therefore learned Latin and Greek as soon as I could, and my passion for languages has continued to grow ever since. My entire vocation stems from that period. Perhaps this points to an initial definition of erudition. For me, the value of this erudite knowledge was the ability to access a kind of otherness, which was liberating for me as—though with very little awareness at the time—I felt a kind of vague liberation from what I was able to understand of the society in which I lived. This access can only be achieved through effort, an effort that consists of leaving behind the modes of thinking and the world in which one lives to enter into another society or another civilization through erudite knowledge. Leaving behind the reference points of common beliefs or the habits of one’s native language requires real intellectual energy. For an adolescent, such effort is wholly formative. For me, erudition has a particularly liberating aspect, since through its difference this disruptive otherness is able in its way to enrich one’s own society: it’s another world—a kind of sphere of refuge—that also enables us to reinvent the usual modes of thinking.

10 Brigitte Chapelain: And what took place in the encounter with this otherness—I’m thinking of the Greeks in particular? What was it that comforted, intrigued, and interested you about them?

11 William Marx: Greek civilization offers entirely different systems of socially organizing thought, sexuality, and religion. Knowledge of past societies provides us with a hugely different, and I believe useful, lens on many contemporary issues. I would note at least two that I see as being particularly important and current. I was fairly heavily involved, as a citizen and activist, with the Pacte civil de solidarité (PACS) civil union bill and, later, the equal marriage bill. The opponents of these bills—who were essentially supporters of the nuclear family, consisting of father, mother, son, and daughter—held the latter up as an immutable model that had supposedly always existed, but it wasn’t actually established in French society until the nineteenth century. The Roman and Greek civilizations have given us models in so many areas, but we might take some inspiration from their somewhat fluid relationship to sexuality. I don’t of course mean by this that we should import the Greek concept of pederasty. For centuries, the Latin and Greek worlds have enabled us to reconstruct and to enrich society. In Europe, the teaching of Latin and Greek was the bedrock of educating good citizens for centuries. It is a great pity that the French Minister for Education a few years ago, Ms. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, deemed it necessary to do away with the teaching of Latin and Greek, thus breaking with a centuries-old tradition. I was fiercely opposed to this decision, which was based on biased sociology studies. That was because what’s really interesting about this question of erudition, particularly erudition in relation to classical antiquity, is that for so long in modern societies, even in France, the Greek and Roman models were placed at the heart of knowledge even though their literatures, thought, and cultures were in many ways so different from our own. Classical erudition thus put otherness at the heart of the education of young citizens. In schools, by providing its children with a Latin and Greek education and thus enabling them to access this otherness, society gave them the tools to rethink and question it. I’ve already mentioned the example of sexuality, but the religious issues we are currently facing are equally relevant. The historical opposition between Islam and Christianity is reflected in the West by the impossibility of dialogue within the same society between the representatives—sometimes themselves non-believers—of the civilizations derived from these religions. We are told that such a coming together is impossible, but we should think of it instead in terms of other religions from the remote past. The study of polytheism, for example, provides a way out of this damaging opposition between two monotheistic religions, as it shows us that there were societies in ancient Greece and Rome where people from the Middle East and other countries arrived with their own gods: they imported them, it was generally allowed, and in any case religions did not see themselves in an exclusive manner. In contemporary Japan, similarly, we see a phenomenon that is very difficult for Westerners to understand. Two religions are practiced in the country: Shinto, an ancient animistic religion, and Buddhism, an entirely different religion of salvation that involves a specific way of thinking and living. Yet Shinto and Buddhism operate almost simultaneously, or at least non-exclusively, within Japanese society and at the level of the individual, with people undertaking either Shinto or Buddhist acts of worship at different times of day or life. This example shows how important it is to look at what goes on elsewhere. For a long time, ancient societies were at the heart of teaching in this country, and thus gave us relatively easy access to otherness. Where is this otherness in the education system today? I fear that the technology and social economics options that were touted as replacing the study of ancient languages in France will merely serve to further indoctrinate pupils in the dictatorship of the present, by anesthetizing all critical thinking with respect to the dominant ideologies. If erudition serves any purpose, it is to provide access to an otherness that is essential to reframing our view of the world.

12 Brigitte Chapelain: You mentioned teaching. Forty or fifty years ago, there were still real links between teaching literature and erudition, but this is now a bygone era. The teaching of literature seems to be in chronic difficulty at lycée [high school] level, but also in universities. What is your view on this?

13 William Marx: I believe we are coming out of the teaching crisis in lycées. The 1990s through to around 2010 were characterized by a dominant model based on theory and rhetoric, a highly abstract model that sucked away all relationship between the literary text and any reality. Through this lens, every text was read as a formal construction. When pupils were asked to read a novel or an extract from a novel, rather than think about the plot, cultural and historical references, the characters, and how they felt about them, they were asked to explain the narrative system and whether there was a narrator, a metanarrator, or actantial “helpers,” for example. These highly formalist teaching objectives were derived from the theoretical work of people such as Gérard Genette in narratology, and made lessons excessively technical, overlooking the fact that the texts studied in school have something to say, and that authors want to tell a story, or convey an emotion, for example. In particular, the idea has been drummed into pupils that the actual content of a text is less important than the technique used to convey it. This is a problem throughout the entire education system up to the lycée level. At university, teaching literary theory and its techniques is entirely appropriate. In the school education system, however, the important thing is to teach literature in a way that enriches pupils’ everyday experience of reading, not put them off. Just look at how children love reading up to collège [junior high school] level, but subsequently lose the desire to read. This is largely due to literature being taught in a way that does not give enough consideration to the dimension of pleasure and esthetics, and does not provide pupils with the reference points required to understand what the text is actually saying. Tzvetan Todorov discusses this at length in La Littérature en peril.

14 Brigitte Chapelain: If I understand correctly, at the lycée level there is a certain rather reductive manner of analyzing literary texts, and writing and communication techniques, without really looking at the content?

15 William Marx: Yes. There was a push to focus French lessons on mastering writing and communication techniques, at the expense of what truly underpins literature: the transmission of an experience. The role of teaching literature in schools is also to create common ground, as it includes an aspect of socialization. Every society needs a common language—hence the importance of a literary canon. We must be able to challenge its composition, but not its principle, for we cannot do without a canon at the school level, in particular a canon that extends to the level of a society, a nation, or even the European level. It is essential that, as in the past, we have literary references and texts that are not only common to a society, but also to generations, i.e., for a grandmother to be able to hear her granddaughter or great-granddaughter recite one of La Fontaine’s fables. La Fontaine is part of this essential canon—he’s an excellent example of the kind of author who can be profitably read and studied from elementary school through to the Collège de France, and as such brings all the generations together, by providing reference points, sayings, and quotations that can be used in any everyday situation. La Fontaine plays a role in making society. There are of course other examples.

16 Brigitte Chapelain: The stereotype of the erudite person is often associated with accumulation. Is the erudite person still associated with reading and with piles of books?

17 William Marx: That would be a reductive view, since accumulation is not neutral. It changes objects and gives them an extra chance of survival. Certainly, erudition can sometimes seem like an individual kind of knowledge solely for the self. Some people accumulate knowledge and produce very little of their own in their lifetime, if ever. Librarians and collectors may also be highly erudite people without producing anything themselves. But by accumulating objects, documents, books, and works of art, collectors enable them to be preserved and passed down the generations. Collectors may not transmit knowledge in the form of a text or teaching, but they do also practice transmission down the generations, and from one age to the next—it’s just not a material kind of transmission.

18 Brigitte Chapelain: In what way do erudite people make things happen?

19 William Marx: There are two sides to erudition. Earlier I noted that modern science developed in opposition to erudition, critical of its gratis nature, its accumulation of the superfluous, and lack of problematization. Erudition is seen as a kind of knowledge for its own sake, as gratis, a slightly neurotic form of obsession with accumulation, almost as knowledge in its anal stage. There is an over-willingness to position erudition—seen as the blind accumulation of knowledge—in opposition to science—seen as asking the right questions. But it is in fact erudition that enables us to ask the right questions. Just look at doctoral students embarking on their dissertation, who often struggle to know where to look once they have asked a question. You have to accumulate a certain number of documents and cast a fairly wide net in the beginning in order to find the ones that will answer the question you are asking. And perhaps in the end you won’t find the documents to answer your question, but instead will discover others that lead on to other questions, and have to rephrase your initial question in order to incorporate the knowledge you have discovered. The problem of erudition is thus the confrontation with otherness, with an unknown mass. That’s why the work of erudition, which always takes place over the long term, isn’t always compatible with the timelines of academic and scientific research, despite the fact that this temporality is an absolute necessity. I can provide a personal example of how discovering documents led to an epiphany that changed my way of thinking. In my study of Greek tragedy, my original objective was to show how we understand it very poorly, as our modern and philosophical literary conception of the tragic has nothing to do with Athenian tragedy in the fifth century BCE. This philosophical concept of the tragic actually developed in the modern period in Germany, as humanity against fate and the fatal crushing of the former by the latter. The philosophers who conceptualized the tragic—Schelling, Hegel, and even Nietzsche—found that of the three dramatists whose work has survived, Euripides was the least tragic: paradoxically, his tragedies often end happily, and he was therefore termed a decadent author. I then looked at Euripides more closely, and found that his tragedies, unlike those by Sophocles and Aeschylus, have come down to us through two different channels. The first of these is a scholarly selection made in the second century CE by grammarians, who chose ten or so plays by Euripides. These ten tragedies are found in a whole host of manuscripts, accompanied by commentaries by erudite people and scribes. But two manuscripts also include eight other tragedies by Euripides, with the unique feature that their titles are listed in alphabetical order, from epsilon to iota. These eight tragedies represent a fragment of an ancient complete edition of Euripides’ works. In antiquity, an author’s complete works were listed in alphabetical order. A fragment of the complete works of Euripides, i.e., a few scrolls, was found somewhere and copied. To emphasize, these eight tragedies were not selected, but are found together solely due to the hazards of alphabetical order. I found this really interesting, and proposed the hypothesis that these eight plays might in some ways provide a more representative statistical sample of Euripides’ tragedies as a whole than the ten canonical plays. If so, I wondered, what might we learn from them? Were they different from the plays that were passed down by the scholarly selection of the second century? Upon further study, I was astonished to find that when I looked at their endings, of the ten of Euripides’ tragedies passed down through scholarly tradition, nine ended unhappily, while of the eight plays preserved by chance, seven had a happy ending. In short, the proportion was totally reversed. I had not at all anticipated this opposite finding and was genuinely stunned. Naturally, from then on I had to entirely rework my own questions, rethink the problem completely, supplement my research by examining fragments from the other plays by Euripides and by Sophocles, and identify which of the surviving tragedies had happy or sad endings, etc. I found that in fact, contrary to our whole idea of the tragic, over half of the plays by these authors had a happy ending. This required me to reread Aristotle’s Poetics and ask new questions. That’s the kind of finding that can be entirely unanticipated at the start of an investigation. New data, derived from erudite scholarship, can force us to look in a new light at a whole piece of reality that we previously thought was set in stone.

20 Brigitte Chapelain: That is an excellent example of the need for erudition in advancing research.

21 William Marx: I wasn’t the first person to say we hadn’t properly understood tragedy, but I identified an entirely new argument simply by asking questions about the tradition of ancient works and how they have been passed down to us. Erudition does not consist of taking the knowledge we learn in school at face value, but of looking elsewhere. There is a kind of self-justification of the canon by schools, whereas erudition forces us to challenge the tradition and the canon, and to understand how this tradition developed. This shows us that the canons taught in school are merely the tip of an iceberg, and immersing ourselves in the archives sometimes uncovers a submerged mass that looks very different.

22 Brigitte Chapelain: Your book Le Tombeau d’Œdipe also shows the dangers of certain forms of erudition. A whole tradition of glosses, interpretations, and analyses had ultimately created an erroneous conception of the tragic. If you hadn’t gone back to the manuscripts, the accumulated erudite scholarship would have done nothing to change things.

23 William Marx: That’s right, erudition always means going back to the source, i.e., not being satisfied with second-hand knowledge, just like a good journalist. The techniques are in fact the same: not being satisfied with the discourse, but always going back to check. The work is never done. There is often little time for such verification, even though it is crucial. In theory, at a certain point erudite scholarship always aims to surpass itself, by rethinking the traditions that have developed previously. The ideas that have been passed on must be subjected to critical examination.

24 Brigitte Chapelain: Ultimately, what do academics in your discipline think of erudition?

25 William Marx: As we discussed earlier, a paradigm shift has more or less taken place, from a highly theoretical view to a more historical perspective. But the kind of erudition that now exists in literature differs from the one that existed before. We’re no longer in the era of Raymond Picard. For example, erudite scholarship in literary history has now taken on board the lessons of problematization through theory. So, the opposition between theory and history that was typical of the 1960s is no longer an issue.

26 Brigitte Chapelain: What do you mean by that?

27 William Marx: I think it’s always useful to put any theory into context. I often champion this idea. The theoretical approach claims to take a lofty point of view on things, but such a perspective is in fact derived from the history of ideas, which is always evolving. Formalist theory, for example, in the 1960s and 1970s, was presented as the ultimate perspective on literature, but we can in fact trace the history of this idea of form within literature, from which formalist criticism emerged. This was the topic of my doctoral dissertation. In my work I have often sought to study the history of theory, i.e., to demonstrate the different conceptions of literary works, literature, the functions of literature, and the status of literature and writers, which have constantly evolved and changed from one century to the next, or even over the course of a few decades. It is quite remarkable how some products of the literary theory of the 1970s are now, fifty years later, almost entirely unreadable, as if they had dropped in from another planet.

28 Brigitte Chapelain: Some were unreadable at the time.

29 William Marx: Particularly as being unreadable was an actual aim back then: the more unreadable you were, the more intelligent you seemed.

30 Brigitte Chapelain: Was that not erudition?

31 William Marx: Definitely not, it was anti-erudition! It was based on the idea that the value and depth of a thought could be measured by the complexity of its expression. Some critics made a career off the back of it. There were major models for this in philosophy and psychoanalysis—it’s not hard to think of a few names. But we can trace the history of these theories and systems, and that’s what interests me. I don’t mean that the historical approach is the ultimate way of understanding the conception of the literary work, but from my earliest research I felt it was important, and believe this is now even more the case, to consider the succession of theories in literature. It is precisely these different conceptions that can help us to think of literature in a different way.

32 Brigitte Chapelain: You’re the current Chair of Comparative Literature at the Collège de France. In comparative literature, erudition is not only multidisciplinary, but is also characterized by great cultural diversity.

33 William Marx: Yes, we tend to look at erudition solely in historical terms, and not in geographic terms. But we need to do both. We live in a particular space and time, a space and time that determines a cultural variability, and operates along two axes: vertical and horizontal, the axis of time and the axis of space. The goal of comparative literature is to describe this variability. There are of course different ways to approach comparative literature. In this Chair I want to research otherness beyond the unifying appearance of the text. The usual approach consists of putting translated texts and French texts, and ancient and modern texts, on the same footing, in terms of both bookselling and reading practices. We might read Virgil, or a Japanese, Indian, or African author, as if they were someone who wrote for us. But things are rather more complicated than that: scientific and erudite, informed work involves precisely looking at the context in which books were written and knowing that, in such-and-such a period or culture, often very distant from ours, these had a different value to the one we assign them today. From this point of view, geographic distance is as important as distance in time. And it’s very useful when you are pursuing erudite scholarship, because one of its goals consists of trying to reconstruct worlds, a great many of which have been lost to us forever. As such, you have to learn how to be modest, and acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Six hundred tragedies, maybe more, were performed in the fifth century BCE in Athens, and only thirty-two complete plays survive. So, we can’t be too categorical about our knowledge: you always have to say “subject to verification,” for example, as there is so much we don’t know, and all statements are ultimately subject to this kind of doubt and uncertainty.

34 For comparatists, geographic distance is a useful parameter. Ethnologists know that entering into a different society requires us to seek out a huge amount of information. I have therefore attempted to use geographic and cultural distance to ask more relevant questions about lost works and lost worlds. This approach can be used to interrogate the temporal axis using the geographic axis, as I have done with Noh drama, for example. Noh is a form of theater that in many ways formally resembles Greek tragedy: with a chorus, a ritual dimension, the use of masks, a very small cast, dance, and an orchestra. Like the Athenian tragedies, Noh plays are traditionally performed as part of a program, over the course of a day. There is however one big difference: we have lost almost everything from Greek tragedy, we know very little about it, and we are still asking questions about the rituals that accompanied the major Athenian festivals, the presence of an altar in the theater, the jury vote, for example, as there are so many gray areas. In the case of Noh, it’s very different: Noh drama was created in the fourteenth century, and its traditions have been passed on down through families of performers. Unlike with Greek tragedy, we have access to large archives providing information about this form of theater. Using the knowledge we can acquire from cultures that are different but contemporary to our own thus enables us to hold up a mirror to cultures that are lost to us and distant in time.

35 These two forms of erudition can be complementary.

36 Brigitte Chapelain: That’s one of the aspects of cultural diversity: understanding the—sometimes distant—other, in order to better understand yourself.

37 William Marx: And this diversity and otherness can only be accessed through effort and energy. It would be easy for us to be satisfied with what we read on our screens. But we must acknowledge that these texts and documents come from another world, and strive to find out about it. Having the world at the click of a button doesn’t mean we have access to the reality of this world. That takes effort.

38 Brigitte Chapelain: In relation to the influence of erudition on literary fiction, there are two aspects: the fictionalization of erudition, and the inclusion of erudition in fiction.

39 William Marx: There is immense tension between erudition and literature. They are like two opposite poles. In the nineteenth century, when our modern conception of literature was developing, the erudite person held little interest for writers. Erudite figures, for example in the work of Proust or even Sartre (such as the autodidact in Nausea), are always rather ridiculed in comparison to artists. Just look at the opposition in Proust between Brichot, the Sorbonne professor, and the writer Bergotte and the painter Elstir. While Brichot is a risible, hopeless figure, the narrator is clearly drawn to Bergotte and Elstir. The same can be seen in the work of other authors. In the figure of the erudite person, the literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to embody and ridicule the Ancien Régime of literature—belles lettres—which existed before the creation of the modern concept of literature. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century belles lettres fused humanist knowledge with artistic writing, which is exactly what modern writers have rejected. Modern writers are supposed to draw from within, from their own personal experience, not from external knowledge. But during the twentieth century a paradigm shift took place, via the work of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges. Borges created a certain distance from the literary paradigm, by taking the established idea of literature with a pinch of salt, and rehabilitated erudition. Umberto Eco did a great deal to popularize this shift—essentially inventing the erudite, intellectual novel with The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum—and others followed in his wake. There is now a surfeit of erudite, historical crime novels, such as those by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Eco’s poor imitators. In parallel, there has been a rehabilitation of humanist knowledge and erudition in literature. Pascal Quignard is an excellent example of this, as an extremely erudite, humanist author who has reintroduced esoteric knowledge to his works and essays. The same might be said of Pierre Michon. We are now seeing the return of a humanist erudite knowledge in literature, seen in a positive light.

40 Brigitte Chapelain: What do you think digital technologies bring to erudite practices, in particular the creation of stores of information and knowledge, and access to them?

41 William Marx: The number of books and documents that can be accessed online is being transformed on a daily, if not hourly, basis. The growth is incredibly rapid, it’s quite extraordinary! So many texts are now online, some immediately contemporary, but also other older texts; it’s a marvel for researchers. But they aren’t all easy to access. When you’re looking for a book, there is no universal database, you have to search in various places, catalogs, and libraries, and these aren’t always well organized. The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF, French National Library) catalog is extremely well classified and hierarchized, but Gallica, despite being developed by the same team, is an example of how big databases can be a mess: it’s not easy to find the documents you’re looking for. Google Books has lots of digital texts, but they are often inaccessible and limited to searching for quotations. There are also pirate databases, which digitize copyrighted texts. We urgently need to develop training to clear up this mess: for students, doctoral students, and perhaps above all established researchers, who are not always familiar with these new tools. My own doctoral students have taught me a lot about them!

42 There are two issues in particular. First, it’s easy to think that everything has been digitized, but this is far from being the case. If a reference does not come up in searches, there’s a danger of thinking that it does not exist. A fairly small proportion of library and archive holdings has been digitized. We need to keep going to libraries to do research, that’s essential. Bigger digitization campaigns are likely, but they have to be accompanied by the necessary metadata, which is very expensive. Another, perhaps more serious issue is the fact that we don’t currently have the necessary certificates to confirm the accuracy of the text we are shown. With texts that are digitized in photographic format this isn’t a problem, as you can check the source directly. But when texts are digitized in an easily accessible text format, as in Wikisource for example, we must not forget that it is extremely easy to tamper with them and that errors may have been introduced during the digitization process, and we must undertake due diligence to check the text. Digital texts are full of errors. The work of printing, academic publishing, and learned collections provide us with assurances about the authenticity of a text on the basis of the erudite scholarship that has established it. This is the work we have to pursue by going back to the source. Online texts lack a kind of certificate of authenticity which hasn’t yet been invented. Pending such a certificate, the digitized texts accessible online can still be seen as a highly practical tool for easily and rapidly progressing research, but there’s no getting round the fact that at the end of the day, you have to go back to the texts in image format, i.e., in libraries. Returning to images as a final resort means returning to the printed word, since we know that traditional printing follows certain rules. The “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade” editorial collection and learned collections of antiquarian texts such as the Collection Budé present texts as having guaranteed accuracy—and even they sometimes include errors and typographical mistakes. So once I’ve finished a search, I sometimes prefer to directly access the hard copy edition or a PDF image; in a sense, the digitized text is not validated until I have seen the image of the printed version. Essentially, we are still living with the old ways, because we don’t have adequate protocols for validating the authenticity of purely digital texts. We don’t have an online collection that guarantees the authenticity of a digital text.

43 Brigitte Chapelain: Is the visual quality of digitized manuscripts good?

44 William Marx: Yes, it is. I work a lot on Valéry’s manuscripts, for example. I edited Valéry’s Cahiers, and I’m currently editing the Poetics course given by Valéry himself at the Collège de France between 1937 and 1945 which is solely in the form of written notes. The quality of the copies of these manuscripts produced by the BNF is, of course, excellent. Even photographs taken just with your phone, with permission, are of excellent quality, and sometimes better than reading the manuscript in person, as you can zoom in on them. Photography and digitization are clearly the future of extremely fragile documents. Documents written in pencil fade over time: when you photograph them, you preserve the document in its current state, you stabilize it. This raises the question of the longevity of different media. Parchment has lasted for centuries: I always find the idea of “old fragile parchment” rather amusing, as old parchments, the ones made from animal skin, resist everything. Nothing is more robust. We can even find on them texts that were scratched, rubbed out, and rewritten over, which just goes to show! But good quality paper is also able to resist the ravages of time. It is extraordinary how books have endured over the centuries. The problem with digital tools is that they are dependent on electrical power and on continual updates to convert them into endless new systems, and databases require permanent maintenance. This need for ongoing maintenance is the real weakness of digital, and is a particular concern in relation to crisis situations.

45 Brigitte Chapelain: Have digital tools changed the ways in which erudite people communicate, and the relationships between them?

46 William Marx: My answer to this question would have been different prior to lockdown. The shift to videoconferencing that took place during lockdown is clearly here to stay. But has it really fundamentally changed things? I don’t think so. At the end of the day, we have all moved to communicating via email. Since the Middle Ages, the “Republic of Letters” described by Marc Fumaroli, who has just passed away [June 2020], cultivated an epistolary tradition, and in the humanist period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these exchanges became crucial to the life and development of knowledge. Lettered people created a European Republic even before it existed on paper. They communicated in Latin, while English is now the lingua franca.

47 Brigitte Chapelain: And now?

48 William Marx: There are social networks such as Academia, which enable academics working on related subjects to contact one another. We now have—particularly with lockdown—absolutely incredible ways of remotely creating a research community—but in truth, this ability was always there. Digital tools have made things easier, rather than changing our mindset. The idea of a learned republic, a republic of letters, is much older than the digital revolution, and you could even argue that the digital revolution is partly the product of the global learned republic: the tools of the World Wide Web were initially research tools, invented at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and in the 1990s it was on university campuses that email began to really take off. Lettered and learned people were at the forefront of this movement.

49 But having access to the entire world at the click of a button doesn’t mean that we can sit back and wait for it to come to us. Who makes the effort to look at what is happening elsewhere—not even on the other side of the world, but simply in another European country? Everyday use of the internet, which was originally envisaged as a way of opening up the world, has ultimately enabled people to find others who think like them and to create communities and ideological bubbles of likeminded individuals. The effect has been to close things down rather than open them up. A movement like the Gilets Jaunes is a typical product of social networks: without social media, people might never have realized that they could come together in large numbers despite their isolation in rural areas. People generally seek out similar people on the internet, rather than otherness. And yet it’s so easy, even if you only speak French, to read Swiss, Belgian, Canadian, and African newspapers. And if you do speak a foreign language, in particular English, you have access to a huge mass of information, and entirely different perspectives on current affairs. Even if you’re only interested in France, looking at what people are saying about France in the United States, Japan, or other European countries, provides a way to relativize some aspects of the discourse. But very few people do this, because it takes effort, and the internet is not set up to encourage this relationship to otherness. On the contrary, search engines and social networks are entirely designed to limit you to your previous searches and never show you anything new. In libraries, on the other hand, the opposite is true: you look at a shelf and are confronted with otherness, with books whose existence you had never imagined. We see the same phenomenon, the same difference, between a physical bookstore and an online bookstore: in the local bookstore you discover books that you weren’t looking for, while the online bookstore only shows you what it assumes you want to see. Like the way Aesop describes the tongue [as mentioned in Maximus Planudes’s Life of Aesop], the internet is both the best and the worst of things. It offers extraordinarily rich databases, but the systems for accessing them confine you to what you already know or might anticipate. We need to develop different search engines that will continuously deliver new and unexpected results.

50 Brigitte Chapelain: Do you see new forms of erudition developing through digital tools?

51 William Marx: Well, the digitization of texts means that searches that would have previously taken years of research, if not an entire lifetime, can be done in just a few clicks. You can search for instances of a word in a particular corpus and get immediate results, figures, and statistics, even if it’s not always easy to exploit these data.

52 Brigitte Chapelain: As in your research on intertextuality, for example?

53 William Marx: Yes, for example in relation to intertextuality. In my first lecture course at the Collège de France, “Construire, déconstruire la bibliothèque” [Constructing and Deconstructing the Library] I looked at instances of the expression “les étoiles nouvelles” [new stars]. This was a mere digression for me, and I found the internet useful for finding such instances in various different languages in mere moments. Databases provide a lightning-quick way to conduct searches that would previously have taken an entire lifetime of looking through accumulated manuscript sheets to eventually provide a basis for a doctoral dissertation. That kind of research is a bit devalued now; researchers have to take it a little further, which is no bad thing. Gathering the data isn’t enough, you have to know how to interpret it and ask the right questions.

54 Brigitte Chapelain: Using digital tools, young people are expressing themselves in new ways (such as video games, fan fiction, web series, and machinimas) and exchanging tips and techniques, working on characters, and inventing stories and dialogue. Do you see these young amateurs almost as experts in new forms of erudition ?

55 William Marx: I still belong to a generation that knew the non-virtual world, while younger people are sometimes satisfied with the virtual and almost know nothing else. I don’t play video games, but know that many young people do, including up to those in their thirties and forties, and I have no doubt that the experiments in fiction and online communities involved in video games merit in-depth analysis. Some people may tend to look down on these kinds of experiments, but not me. I merely recognize my own ignorance in this area. One day I should perhaps make an effort to enter this world and take a look around, if only because these digital worlds are directly competing with literature and fictional experimentation. There’s literary experimentation, theater, cinema, and now we have video games.

56 Brigitte Chapelain: At the start of the interview, you noted the presence of amateur erudite people alongside professional erudite people. Could you expand on this?

57 William Marx: One example that immediately springs to mind is Philippe Ariès, an amateur historian whose research did not qualify him to join the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS, School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) until a year before he reached retirement age! More generally, learned societies and local history societies have played an important role in exploring archives scattered across the country, with their work serving to kickstart more general research by professional historians. I recall reading a wonderful speech given by Ernest Renan in 1889 in which he paid homage to all the learned societies that had come together at a meeting in Paris. In literature, societies calling themselves the “Friends of” a particular author, as the tradition goes, conduct research and provide academic researchers with often essential support. For many years I was involved in the work to prepare Valéry’s Cahiers for publication, which I ultimately edited, and at least half the team consisted of passionate volunteer researchers who brought various skills to reading these challenging texts: they included doctors, mathematicians, physicists, and specialists on foreign cultures. The growing bureaucratization of academic research is now making this kind of collaboration harder: those qualified to teach in secondary schools are expected to be content with teaching, and their desire to contribute to the development of research is disregarded by those in charge in both secondary education and in higher education and research. Job roles are increasingly compartmentalized. On top of that, basic professional tasks increasingly monopolize our day, and screens compete for our remaining free time: where might amateurs now find the leisure to dedicate to erudition? Private collectors of manuscripts and rare editions, however, play a non-negligible role in supporting the preparation of literary texts for publication. By generously lending or showing researchers their precious collections, they perpetuate the kind of learned sociability that pays no heed to differences in professional conditions and situations.

58 Brigitte Chapelain: Is erudition one of the few remaining freedoms?

59 William Marx: Absolutely! As long as it is still allowed by universities. . . That’s one way of answering the question. I support the “slow thought” movement (like the slow food movement in opposition to fast food), i.e., thought that takes time, ideas that have been allowed to ripen. Dissertations are written so quickly nowadays, and all the research projects funded by the Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR, French National Research Agency) have to be completed within three years: the demand for immediate results is absurd. The timescale of erudite scholarship is out of step with the research funding calendar. Fortunately, some erudition does not require a lot of funding, since using databases costs a lot less than performing a biology or physics experiment. What we do need, however, is time, and that is the rarest commodity of all among academics and scholars. Will we still be given the freedom to pursue erudition? That’s the question. At the Collège de France I have no complaints, I’m very fortunate, but elsewhere the situation is less rosy, and things seem to be getting worse.

60 From a more fundamental point of view, erudition is a form of freedom because it enables us to leave behind our own world, i.e., to go beyond a single framework and way of thinking. It provides access to another world, in which there are spaces of innovation, freedom, fiction, imagination, sensibility, and emotion that enable us to escape from the diktats of everyday life. That would be my second way of responding to your question. In that sense, erudition is a drug, and you can become addicted to it. Erudite people are always reproached for being absorbed in their work, and of being in another world—a bit like gamers on their consoles. I do know erudite people like that, I meet them around the Collège and elsewhere. People who work solely on Greek, Latin, or Egyptian inscriptions and immerse themselves wholly in that world because they get so much enjoyment from it. Personally, at the end of the day I think it’s a shame not to seek to interrogate the contemporary world based on your accumulated knowledge and instead keep it to yourself, as if the ancient or distant world could not serve to shed light on our own. I tend instead—it’s the way I work, I’m a comparatist—to try to use this knowledge by applying it to the contemporary world and formulating questions that enable me to create a distance from it. But I do understand, and even share, the addiction to erudition, which consists of immersing yourself in a kind of giant book on a distant world.

61 Brigitte Chapelain: Marc Fumaroli died yesterday: there’s one erudite person we have lost.

62 William Marx: In my view, he was one of the people who totally rethought literary history. At the Sorbonne he took over the chair previously held by Raymond Picard, Roland Barthes’s old adversary, but Marc Fumaroli took literary history in a very different direction from his predecessor.

63 His work on rhetoric in the seventeenth century, the Classical period, entirely reframed the conception of literary history by focusing not on the biographical details of authors, their life and work, etc., but on a history of the social contexts of communication. That kind of discursive contextualization of the literary text hadn’t been suggested before. Marc Fumaroli developed a new conception of the history of literature far removed from Gustave Lanson’s brand of literary history. As a politically engaged intellectual he may have sometimes expressed rather conservative opinions, but in practice, his approach to the literature of the seventeenth century was genuinely innovative; we have to recognize that. Beyond his positions on cultural politics, he also developed a comparatist-type strand of research, with a wonderful book on cultural relations between France and the United States: Paris-New York et retour. In this, he went beyond his original sphere of expertise and produced some absolutely fascinating research on the way in which European art was imported into the United States and found itself in twentieth-century America in an entirely different context from Ancien Régime France: it’s a truly great comparative book, and rather extraordinary from a historian of Classical literature, when you think that many French historians of literature had, and sometimes still have, anti-comparatist prejudices. Perhaps Fumaroli himself might have rejected the term “comparatism,” but in my view a work that takes into account the different ideological contexts of Europe and the United States is truly comparatist in nature. More broadly, the literary history that he pursued with such intelligence focused on the conditions of the production of discourse, which was fairly novel. He was a tremendously erudite person who asked questions of literature in a different way; as such, he did not reproduce the traditions of erudition in which he believed or claimed to work in, but in fact largely reinvented them. And a large part of literary history as it is now pursued in relation to the Classical period is still greatly influenced by his work, with the dimension of the history of rhetoric still very important. It might actually be now time for historians of Classical literature to consider reinventing their own discourse and supplementing the dominant paradigm of rhetoric with other elements and other parameters.

64 Brigitte Chapelain: Do you see other researchers of his kind, of such stature, emerging in the near future?

65 William Marx: I certainly hope so. The ideal, for a Chair of the Collège de France, for example, is someone who can combine erudition and solid philological foundations with a metadiscursive interrogation of the very data produced by their erudition and knowledge. Such people do exist, I think: there is Antoine Compagnon, of course, and others. . . There are many extremely erudite people. I’m fascinated for example by the dialogue I have with people who attend the lectures, whether in person or remotely, who follow my work and write to me, and I’m astounded by the breadth of their knowledge, which is very useful to me and serves as a catalyst for my own work. Erudition also operates in a collective dimension, as Roland Barthes attempted to theorize in his wonderful essay on the academic seminar.

66 Brigitte Chapelain: So, you communicate with your audience at the Collège?

67 William Marx: Of course. They provide me with reference points, I learn a lot from them. It’s really important to have this kind of dialogue, the kind I used to have with my university students. The audience here is different of course: it includes many academic colleagues, as well as amateur erudite people. The dialogue doesn’t take place during the lecture, unlike at university, which is rather a shame, but attendees can easily contact me through digital channels. Though I do continue, with a great deal of pleasure, to receive letters!

William Marx
William Marx was born in 1966 and is a professor and the Chair of Comparative Literature at the Collège de France (CDF) (College of France). His work, the majority published in French by Éditions de Minuit and translated into multiple languages, includes Naissance de la critique moderne (2002), L’Adieu à la littérature (2005), Vie du lettré (2009), Le Tombeau d’Œdipe (2012), La Haine de la littérature (2015) translated by Nicholas Elliott as The Hatred of Literature (2018), Un savoir gai (2018), and most recently Des étoiles nouvelles: Quand la littérature découvre le monde (2021). His inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Vivre dans la bibliothèque du monde, was published in 2020 (Collège de France/Fayard).
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